West’s response to Russian vaccine owes as much to geopolitics as science

West’s response to Russian vaccine owes as much to geopolitics as science

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In 1768, Russian empress Catherine the Great volunteered to be inoculated against smallpox in an effort to show her subjects that the emerging medical technique was safe. It was with a similar aim in mind that President Vladimir Putin revealed on Tuesday that his daughter had been part of human trials for Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V. That detail came as Mr Putin announced that Russia had granted the vaccine regulatory approval for public use, beating every other country to the milestone.

There is just one catch: the drug is still in the testing phase. In a few weeks, thousands of Russians will start being vaccinated with what is in effect still an experiment.

Predictably, the western response was less than congratulatory. Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, said he was “very sceptical” of such a “dangerous” decision, while his US counterpart, Alex Azar, sniffed: “It is not a race to be first.”

Evidently the Kremlin disagrees with Mr Azar. It is no coincidence that the vaccine was named after the Soviet satellite that won the cold war space race by beating the US into orbit.

Ultimately, Moscow’s attitude is that if the vaccine works, who cares that it broke the rules to get it out before everyone else?

Criticism of Moscow’s rushed approval is justified. While researchers in the US, UK and China working on rival vaccines are also bending long-established regulations to speed up their work, Russia has torn them up completely. The vaccine had yet to begin phase three clinical trials — a critical benchmark that often sees drugs tested on thousands of people for more than a year.